Paging Dr. Bloch
By SANFORD PINSKER
By Jay Neugeboren
274 pages. Two Dollar Radio Press. $15.
Jay Neugeboren (pronounced NEW-ge-born) is, to use the
old-fashioned term, a man of letters, somebody equally at home in a wide
variety of literary genres: the short story, novel, and memoir. The latest work
from Neugeboren is 1940, his first
novel in more than 20 years, but for those readers who remember earlier,
prize-winning novels such as The Stolen
Jew (1981) or Before My Life Began
(1985), the wider canvas of 1940,
with its inter-connected network of subplots, will be a welcome addition to his
books about his brother Robert’s ongoing battle with mental illness or his own
experience with a quintuple bypass.
1940 is simultaneously a
psychological thriller and a love story, an evocation of the Bronx just before
America entered World War II, and an impressive blending of research and the
imagination. Largely told in the plodding Germanic rhythms of Dr. Eduard Bloch,
Adolph Hitler’s childhood physician, the result deftly mixes memories of Hitler
with learned nods toward Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. At stake is a
medical illustrator’s missing father, her mentally disturbed son, also missing,
and nothing less than the fate of Western humanity as Nazi Germany casts its
dark shadow over Europe, and perhaps across the ocean.
As always, the making of art—artfulness, if you will—is never far from whatever
story Neugeboren is out to tell. Here, for example, is how Elisabeth Rofman
explains what she tries to capture as a medical illustrator:
She sat, and imagined that her father was standing next to her and that she was
explaining to him, as Professor Brödel had explained to her, that illustration like the one he was
looking at—unlike a photograph, which was merely imitative—had to comprehend
its subject from all perspectives: topographical, histological, pathological,
medical, surgical. From this knowledge a mental picture would come into being,
and from this picture would the plan of the drawing would take shape.
That was why... a clear and vivid mental picture—what was left in and, more
important, what was left out, always had had to precede the drawing itself.
Multiple perspectives and an uncanny sense of what should go into his
paragraphs, and what should be edited out, are as good a way as any to account
for Neugeboren’s success as a fiction writer.
In 1940, a number of crises in Miss
Rofman’s life bring Rofman and Dr. Bloch into close proximity, and later, into
love. But before we arrive at bliss, Neugeboren allows us to dip into Bloch’s
efforts to write about the Hitler he remembers. In truth, the real Dr. Bloch wrote an article for Collier’s Weekly (March 15 and 22, 1941)
in which he remembered Hitler as the “saddest man I had ever seen.” Moreover,
he felt certain that Hitler’s mother, who he treated for breast cancer, would
“turn in her grave if she knew what became of him.” By contrast, Neugeboren’s
Dr. Bloch goes to some length to disconnect the young man he knew in Austria
from the force of evil he became. Well aware that many scholarly theories lay
Hitler’s rabid anti-Semitism at his
feet, Dr. Bloch, the only Jew for whom Hitler personally arranged safe passage
to America, defends himself in long stretches of his journals. A typical entry
reads like this:
They do so, first, by using Doctor Freud’s Oedipus theory, a theory that often,
when properly (and figuratively) understood, has clinical validity as an aid in
interpreting particular neuroses and psychoses, but which, when used in an
irresponsibly speculative manner, becomes, in effect, what a lumberman’s axe
would be in the hands of a skilled surgeon.
It would be unfair to say that, where his
journals are concerned, Bloch wields a lumberman’s axe much more than he does a
surgeon’s scalpel. This will undoubtedly cause problems for readers who get
lost in thickets of embroidery and over-qualification. Granted, Dr. Bloch—the
fictional creation rather than the genuine article—is the culprit but the blame
will surely fall to Neugeboren himself.
Finally, 1940 does not provide the
wealth of culture detail that makes Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America
(2004) such an enjoyable read, but Neugeboren’s novel is a also page turner.
and better yet, a chance to meet, up close and personal, a largely unknown
figure: Hitler’s childhood physician, Dr. Eduard Bloch.